Month: April 2010

Your role as a netizen.

This somewhat links to my post on Privacy Online, if you want a little bit of back story, well, there it is. I thought I’d follow up with a little bit about what we should all be responsible for in our online lives. This is all my opinion. I don’t claim to be an authority, but this is my bog dammit. Read if it you want, otherwise, go look up some porn, or start a flame war on Facebook. That’s what the internet’s for, right? Looking up illicit material, and getting into arguments over politics, religion, pet ownership, or whatever. Right?

Well, not really. That’s what the internet has turned into. Here’s a brief and history lesson (which admittedly comes from my memory, and cites no references). The internet, in its infancy, was used for communication, and early on, but colleges. It was used to internetwork research labs, and libraries, and pass factual information around. So a student in California could collaborate with a student in New York, without leaving his lab. One of my first memories of the internet was researching for a science paper that I had due. It was a bout black holes. My dad had just gotten an internet connection, and we decided to put this thing to use. So we hopped on our blazing fast 14.4kbps dial-up connection, and went to Webcrawler, and started searching. We found a pamphlet online on the subject, it came direct from Greenwich Observatory, in England. This was astounding to me! We’d gone into a computer in England, and gotten information and saved it on my dad’s computer, all for the cost of a monthly subscription to an ISP, and a telephone line. Wow!

Today, that’s not so amazing. I mean, you can video chat with some dude in Asia, while downloading your porn and reading the NY Times. It’s second nature to us now, its become integral to our lives. The little story about the research paper, that was only about 15 years ago. Since then, connectivity to the internet has changed, a lot! Bandwidth that would have cost a fortune, and required a leased optical line to your premises back then is now commonplace, and sold for $40/month from your digital cable or DSL provider. At that price, everyone’s online now. Even if theyre at the lower end, or even still using the dreaded dial-up service. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who has NO contact with the internet. And its not just on your computer anymore, cel phones, media players, and other hand-held devices. You can pull a device out of your pocket, or off of your belt, or in some cases out of your back pack, and there you have the wealth of information that is the internet at your disposal.

I use the term wealth of information loosely. Now you’ll see how my little stroll down memory lane ties into the subject of YOUR role as a participant in this global thing called the Internet. See, back in 1995, when i was working on my research paper on black holes, the internet was a different place. Yes, there was porn, and there was illicit material, and even some illegal activities, but there was also this huge amount of factual information. Yea, you heard me right, information, based on fact, as in, the kind you can reference. Not ridiculous opinions presented as fact, not flat out lies presented as fact, but actual fact. Yes, it’s still out there, but you need to know how to find it. Is this right? When you go to the library, do you have to read 4 books on the same subject in order to decide if the information you’re reading in one book is correct? Sure, if you want to be thorough, but really, if you pick up a book at the library, and its presented to you as fact, there’s a pretty good chance that it ACTUALLY IS FACT.

What does this have to do as your role as a netizen? Well, not a whole lot, except that you should try to do your best to avoid propagating lies as fact. A good example is these viral chain e-mails and microblog posts about how some such event is going to change the face of (insert service here) and the only way to prevent it is to (insert action here). I can remember these from back as far as the early ICQ days. This was before AOL bought out Mirabillis, and the ICQ service became their property, mid 90’s or so. There were messages that spread like wildfire saying things like “Mirabillis is going to start charging for ICQ unless you send this message to every flipping person on the planet!”. Or the famous, “Bill gates will send you money if you forward this e-mail on”, which went on to say how Microsoft is tracking this e-mail, and if you send it to people, you’ll get your slice of some exorbitant amount of money. Nevermind the fact that it’s almost impossible for someone to accurately track an e-mail like that. Its not like an e-mail can phone home. At least, not without some sort of attached application. This method of spreading panic has moved its way on to pretty much every social network i’ve ever been a part of. I see it on facebook, i’ve seen it on myspace, and so many others before them. Before you spread something like this, think about it, i mean really think about it. Take a ride over to Snopes and try to find an article referencing the item that you’re about to continue to spread. If you find reason to believe it’s true, then ok, post away, but if you find evidence to the contrary, stop in there, or even better, spread the correct information in its place!

Now comes the good part. Protecting yourself online… Imagine the battlefields of old, where wars were waged with swords, maces, bows and arrows. Warriors went into battle wearing armour, and carrying some weapon with which to defend themselves. To do otherwise would be suicide. Now imagine the internet as that battlefield, and your computer as the warrior. If your computer isn’t wearing its armour, it’s going to get killed. There are a lot of threats out there. Spyware, viruses, adware, attackers… Sounds like a lot to deal with, right? Well, not if you’re prepared. First, it’s good to be knowledgeable of what you’re getting into. Be aware of current threats. I don’t mean that you need to go and get a Computer Science degree, but keep an ear to the ground for threats. There are lot of web sites which publish these things. Subscribe to an RSS feed, or just hit up one or two of these sites a few times a week, just to see what’s out there. Know your enemy so to speak.

Next, consider your computer. Think about what OS you’re running, and what its vulnerable to. It’s pretty common knowledge that Windows is a target for many viruses and malware. There are a number of reasons for this, but I could write a whole other post about that. So if you’re running windows, you need to be on the alert. Keep your computer up to date. Microsoft makes this relatively easy by building automatic updates into your OS. If you cant be bothered with actively going and installing these updates ever so often, then turn on auto-updates, and let them install for you while you’re sleeping. The next thing to consider is Anti-Virus. Keep one on your computer, keep it running, and keep it up to date. I personally use AVG Free on my windows machines. Is this the best on the market? No, but it’s free, and it works well for me. The last thing to consider is a firewall. Personally, i run a pretty lax firewall on my pc’s, but then i protect my network with a firewall in between me and the internet. I do this via a Smoothwall Express machine acting as my internet gateway. It’s connected to my cable modem, and then my network accesses the internet through it. You could also use a personal firewall, such as the windows firewall, or a 3rd party application. I could get into a long talk on network security, but I’ll spare you.

Yea, that was all about Windows, the same ideas apply to other OS’s. Personally, I like linux. I run linux on my workstation at work (solely linux, no dual-boot), and my laptop, and home pc both dual boot Windows 7 and Linux. IMHO, you cant beat the security on linux. Again, i could go nuts listing the reasons, but we’ll just say that at a core level, linux is just more secure than Windows. Much of this applies to MacOS X as well. The same basic principles apply however. Anti-Virus, and Firewalls are still a good idea.

So, we’ve covered your pc, and the spread of nonsense. How about you, as the user? It’s simple really. In the words of Wil Wheaton, “Don’t be a dick”. Yea, I know it’s fun to poke at people from across the world because they have no way to retaliate, other than poking back at you, but really… If you wouldn’t do it to someone’s face, don’t hide behind your computer and do it. We’re all guilty of this from time to time, but make an effort, and the ‘net will be a better place. Other than that, just try to educate yourself on how the magical machine you’re sitting behind works! Yes, I know it’s daunting, I know that your dvd player, your computer, and your cel phone all hold quite a bit of mystery. A computer is not that complex of a device when you get down to it. Well, it is, but you can get a general understanding of its parts and what they do without spending 4 years in higher education. Once you have that basic knowledge, you’re really much better off than most of the average users on the internet. Go read about it, and learn things, you’d be surprised how simple some of this computer magic really is!

Last but not least, protect your identity. There are a lot of people out there who want to collect as much information about you as possible, and use it against you. Whether its for advertising, or identity theft. See my entry on Privacy (linked above) for a more in-depth look at protecting your privacy online. If you get an e-mail, asking you for personal information, please take a really good hard look at it before you blindly reply. Any company who’s asking you for your password in an e-mail really needs to take a good hard look at their security practices. Under no circumstances should you ever send someone your personal information in an e-mail unless you’ve encrypted it using a method that only the intended recipient can decrypt. I mean it, seriously, if a legitimate company asks you for your password in an e-mail, you should either stop dealing with them, or call them and ask them if they’re really serious. E-mail, unless you’ve made an effort to make it otherwise, is clear text. If someone intercepts your message, they can see what’s in it.

So anyway, there it is, now go, be a productive member of the ‘net. …

Privacy online.

So I’m listening to online radio, and one of the commercials i keep hearing is for this service called Privacy Defender. They tell you how all of this information that you thought might be private is floating around the internet. The continue to scare the crap out of you by stating that prospective employers, significant others, and others might go find this information online, and it could affect their opinion of you.

First I’d like to say that this is nothing more than a company preying on your fear and dis-information to try to make a buck. The idea that you could hire someone to go about erasing your identity from the internet is ridiculous. You may or may not be aware of how “The Internet” works. So I’ll give you a basic run down. There is no thing called “The Internet” which is operated or controlled by some group. The network that we perceive as this mysical thing which you can go play games on, chat with your friends, or (imagine this) research things you’d like to know more about, is a conglomeration of many computers, all containing data, which is then shared out to all the rest of the members on the network. If you’re reading this blog, on your computer, sitting in your living room, you’re an equal member of this network as any other machine that’s connected. You could be a web server, you could be a mail server, providing that your ISP allows you to.

You control your information. If you don’t want others to have it…. Dont share it! Keep in mind, that a lot of your information is considered public knowledge, and can be obtained through the court house, or even your local library. If you’ve already jumped in both feet, and your information is everywhere, well, go try to get it back. A lot of web site administrators will cooperate with you if you go to them in a professional manner. I don’t know if they’re legally obligated (or, even if they should be) to remove your data, but ask them, if theyre reasonable, they’ll help you out. If they won’t, don’t sue them. It’s different if they’ve obtained private data about you and published it without your knowledge. If you’ve posted some embarrassing pictures of you and your college room mate making out at some frat house party in college, you put it there, you should have thought better of it before you posted it. If someone else posted it because they were at the frat house party, and took a picture of you, and you let it happen, then maybe you should have thought of that and tackled them and deleted the picture from their phone. Contacting the site operator is essentially what services like Privacy Defender would do. Of course, i don’t know what goes on under the sheets of Privacy Defender, but knowing what i know about running a web server, what else could they do? They can’t go and remove things from my server, they have to go to Me, the operator of the server, and ask nicely. The only power they have that you might not, is a knowledge of the law and perhaps sleazy lawyers that know how to exploit it.

I recently watched an interesting video, where Eben Moglen spoke in front of a group about “Freedom in the cloud”. I’ll embed the video in a moment, if you’d like to watch it. He made some very good points regarding privacy, a user’s role in the internet, and how we’ve all blindly given our information away. If you use Facebook, i’d highly recommend you watch this video. It’s a little dry, and some of it’s a bit technical, but it brings out some very important details about what the guys at facebook (and other social networking sites for that matter) can do with your data!

So, why am I posting this? Well, watching that video really made me think about our society, and how intertwined our lives are with our online lives. Slowly they’re becoming one and the same. This is a cool trend, but also a scary one! When companies like facebook can, via a nicely worded EULA, claim ownership of all of the data you decide to post, where does your privacy go?

When i started getting involved with computers, BBS’s, web communities, and things of the like. I always used an alias, an avatar, to identify myself. This is how it was done, this is how everyone did it. If someone signed up with their full name as their username, you knew they were naive, and not privacy minded. At that time, if you chose to sign up with some online community, the only person who had access to your data (other than the data you chose to make public) was the operator. Was there still a chance of that operator doing nasty things with your data? Yes, but that was your responsibility. You tried to keep track of who you were giving your data to, and what you gave them.

Today, we share some of our most private data without a through on sites like MySpace, and Facebook. Sexual preference, the town you live in, how many kid’s you’ve got, what their names are, what your favorite hobbies are, where you work, your political affiliation. I could build a profile on you based on the information you post daily on Facebook. On top of that, i can find out what you looked like from your picture gallery, or if i were a predator, what you’re 14 year old daughter looked like… Combine all of that data, and someone could literally show up at your door, or stalk you at work, or god forbid, your children at school.

Am i saying we should all leave social networking en-mass? No, just be careful what you make public. Keep in mind that ANYONE on the internet can find that data. Dont set the password to your bank account online to some data that i could phish out of your facebook profile.